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Souk it to me!

Let’s start at the end. The icecream at Tagines in Kensington is nothing short of spectacular. Creamy, flavoursome, brilliantly rich.

Eating it is to be transported to a sort of post-coital reverie, where one is reduced to uttering dreamy, languid noises of appreciation like mmmm and ooohh yeeeaaah. More on that soon.

Kensington is a southern suburb which, one suspects, is always on the way to somewhere else. Its 1940s’ bungalows are arranged in ordered streets, their squat, withdrawn facades staring blankly outward.

On sunny, warm afternoons Kensington hums with the muted sounds of Australian suburbia – crows lazily faaarkh, faaarkh, faaarkhing in a nearby gum tree, power tools erupting into short whining bursts, the tearing sound of a skateboarder freewheeling on a quiet street and the distant screams of delight from playing children.

On George Street, not far from Curtin University, a group of faded shops plays host to Tagines, a restaurant made quite spectacular by its food. In fact, Tagines is one of the great restaurant finds of Perth, and well worth the journey to Outer Kensington.

What makes it so special? The food is very good. The prices are terrific. The owners and staff deliver a friendly, cheerful service which is a commonsense, look-you-in-the-eye, straightforward repudiation of the falsely civil, archly trendy, world weary, look-at-me-I’m-cool kind of service one often has to put up with in more urban surrounds.

The fact that its décor is nondescript and its furniture hopelessly unfashionable just makes the experience more agreeable.

An entrée of oja merguez ($8.00) came in a small ramekin. It is a fry-up of egg, cooked, cubed potatoes and a sliced sausage. It is rather eggy as one would expect and the lamb-based merguez sausage was pan fried, bringing out its subtle mid-eastern spiciness.

The North African sardines ($9.50) were advertised as sardine fillets filled with chermoula sauce and preserved lemon served with warm zahlouk. I wouldn’t know a zahlouk if I fell over one but the combination of flavours which were packed into the cavity of the two sardines was superb. Preserved lemon is one of the common condiments of North African cuisine and its finely diced presence in this dish was most welcome.

The sardines were served simply on a small salad of greens. This truly was a marvellous and original dish.

We ordered side dishes of condiments with the entrées and the harissa ($1.90) is worthy of a mention. Most harissa – certainly that which is found in supermarkets or specialty food shops – is a one dimensional thermo-nuclear blast of ground, almost pure, chilli. Tagine’s harissa was complex and aromatic with a strong mint flavour and a deep, earthy bite of chilli. It was hot, but it was also flavoursome. Without doubt, the best harissa I’ve eaten.

Other condiments and side orders include Turkish bread ($2.00), preserved lemon ($1.90), mint yoghurt ($2.00) and a fragrant tomato jam ($2.00).

Tagines make their own preserved lemons (you can see them stacked in large jars on a wall of the restaurant) and they are perfectly pitched: not too sweet, not too salty, not too sour, not too acidic, in fact just right.

The thick lemon flesh had been rendered translucent and soft from the chemical reaction of the salt and sugar. The tang of the essential lemon oils were crisp and cleansing.

A main course of cous cous royal ($16.00) was the most expensive dish on the menu and great value for money. It was essentially a mound of fluffy cous cous crowned with a piece of each of the meats served at Tagines – a slice of grilled merguez, a fried kefta (a ball of ground meats and spices), a fried marinated lamb cutlet and a piece of chicken marinaded in chermoula sauce. All the meats were grilled or pan fried and were elevated with either good marinades or expert grilling. While the cous cous was superb, it was almost cold. The addition of chakchouka, a sort of salsa or pesto made from fried green peppers and tomato, added to the dish.

The waiter brought a small jug of hot lamb broth to the table to “pour over the cous cous, if you prefer it a little wetter”. I did.

It was great. This simple, extra gesture says much about the care and thought that is very evident at Tagines. It’s clear these people love their work and delight in giving the customer a treat.

The lamb tagine with prunes and almonds ($15.50) arrived in the conical earthernware dish after which both this middle eastern stew and the restaurant itself is named. The lamb, a little tough and stringy, was braised in a rich and dark sauce of a demiglaze consistency that would make any chef proud. The prunes were soft and plump and the blanched almonds had also gone soft in the cooking. The flavours were mild, but highly authentic and beguiling. You’d have to travel to a distant oasis for a better tagine.

And then there were the icecreams. At $6.50 for three scoops and pistachio bread it was a bargain. The three flavours were perfectly suited to the Middle Eastern/North African theme: lemon, orange and burnt honey.

The orange was sherbety and light, the lemon was creamy, piquant and laced with fresh zest, and the burnt honey was indecently fine. Post-coital, post-prandial analogies aside, rarely have I tasted such perfection in icecream making. It’s enough to make a woman rip off her yashmak and go dancing in the souk (or so The Blonde informed me).

Tagines is the child of Heather Bott and Debbie Marshall. It has been open just over two years and provides a true alternative to the mainstream cuisines and themes that abound in Perth. The two women run the shop with a bustling, joyful energy which, while the antithesis of urban cool, is marvellous.

Go to Tagines now!

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